What TV critics can learn from Chris Hardwick

The announcement that Chris Hardwick will be hosting a new talk show on AMC called “Talking Bad” has opened up predictable cries of horror from those for whom Hardwick’s brand of “fanboy as corporate mouthpiece” shtick rubs them the wrong way. Hardwick has seemingly never met a show or a celebrity he didn’t absolutely love, which makes him ideal for networks and publicists looking for a safe space for their shows and stars to promote themselves. But I come not to bury Hardwick here but praise him, albeit with a huge caveat attached to that praise.

After all, Hardwick could have only gotten so far if only those inside Hollywood found his “I like things that are great” approach appealing. But given the scope of his Nerdist empire, which only seems to grow on a weekly basis, it’s safe to say that plenty outside of Hollywood appreciate his approach as well. I don’t know the guy at all, so I can’t speak with any accuracy as to the veracity of his approach, but it certainly seems as if he loves everything he talks about and everyone to whom he converses. As such, Hardwick often serves as proxy for those that share an unabashed love for topics he covers and celebrities he interviews. Hardwick’s greatest gift is providing a conduit for enthusiasm between those making pop culture and those that consume it: by offering up as little resistance as possible in simply loving this stuff, Hardwick delivers an experience unencumbered by anything approaching negativity.

play_g_hardwick_b3_400.jpgOf course, such an approach also eliminates criticism altogether, a fact that those who don’t like Hardwick’s approach constantly point out. Pointing it out is fine, but also somewhat besides the point altogether: neither Hardwick, nor those with whom he comes into contact, nor those that tune into those interactions, are remotely interesting in anything that conflicts with the notion that the subject matter at hand is anything less that fabulous. For those sick of trends like “hatewatching,” or hundreds of thousands of words spent by critics on shows they hate, why wouldn’t something like Hardwick’s approach seem like a cool drink of water to those simply seeking someone else who enjoys the same things that they do?

I’d argue that there’s very little that’s above critical reproach, there’s still something to be said about the energy with which Hardwick engages his passions. I’d also argue that Hardwick is the biggest face (and thus biggest target) of an industry that has risen along with his prominence: the “journalism as fandom” movement, in which transcription rather than inquisition rules the day. The point of such a movement isn’t to really learn anything about that subject matter but simply get as close to it as possible. I don’t think this movement is inherently evil, so long as it is recognized for what it is. Such a world stands alongside what I would perceive as real journalism or criticism, but both operate (ideally) in separate ecosystems that each serve a specific need. (Think of them as Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, although I’ll leave it up to the individual to assign which is which.)

Where issues arise is when people want (or view) one to be the other. Those lamenting “Talking Bad” point to its precursor, “Talking Dead,” which served not as a discussion of the hit AMC show “The Walking Dead” but rather a celebration of it. But, again, the point of “Talking Dead” was never, ever about actual inquiry, either for those making it or those watching it. It’s part of the self-contained ecosystem that posits “The Walking Dead” is always and ever awesome, and no other thought can penetrate the sphere around that world. This might be a problem, except there are literally hundreds of other places one could go to have an actual conversation about the show, from blog posts, episodic reviews, or even web-based talk shows like IGN’s “Talking Walking Dead.”

“Talking Dead” doesn’t preclude those types of discourses. But “Talking Dead” also draws an audience that eclipses those of first-run shows on major networks. This suggests one of two things: people are sheep that will watch anything related to zombies, or “Talking Dead” touches a nerve that is worthy of exploration. To be sure, it’s hardly an either/or scenario. And part of the ratings’ bonanza of “Talking Dead” is related to the audience drift that comes from immediately following “The Walking Dead,” itself a ratings’ juggernaut. But I also think “Talking Dead,” like most of Hardwick’s output, fills a need that isn’t being met by most criticism. That need? For the audience to feel that the person discussing the piece of pop culture actually gives a shit about it.

The reason I got out of reviewing individual episodes was practical: I just couldn’t cover five shows a week/multiple podcasts/ad hoc reviews on top of a 9-5 job. On one hand, the need to escape that grind was physical: I’d finish a review of “Scandal” around two am at night, and have to get up five hours later. Do that for five days a week for nine months and see how chipper you feel midday. But on the other hand, the sheer grind also numbed my interest in shows I enjoyed, and created anger towards those I took out of professional obligation rather than stated interest. Not only did that not make my assignments easy to complete, but it also made them less fun to read. Readers are way too smart to not see when a critic doesn’t fully invest in a certain show, know when reviews become homework rather than passion projects, and understand when the performative act of criticism trumps anything to do with the show the critic is ostensibly critiquing.

The sweet spot, so near as I can tell, is halfway between Hardwick’s proselytizing and the distanced criticism that marks so many reviews. The best way to achieve that? By pushing past the idea that all shows needs to be discussed in order to merit worthiness as a critic. We’re so far past the point in which anyone can watch everything that steering into the curve is the best approach. No one seemed to really like the latest season of “The Newsroom,” but many felt that they had to write about it. Critics such as James Poniewozik were the exceptions to this rule, but we need more exceptions and less rules about the shows we as a critical community “have” to cover. The idea that “passion” and “criticism” don’t mix needs to be thoroughly debunked. Indeed, it’s only by owning up to one’s personal passions, predilections, and biases can any true criticism mean anything. Readers might think less of a critic that isn’t into fantasy, but that’s a hell of a lot better that slogging through that person’s reviews of “Game of Thrones”.

Mostly, criticism should belie the passions of the critic in order to translate as something worth reading or viewing in the first place. I don’t really know much about basketball, but I read everything that Grantland’s Bill Simmons writes about it, since his passion for the topic seeps into every sentence. I’m not a big “Sex And The City” fan, but like almost everyone else in the past 24 hours I read Emily Nussbaum’s piece on the show. When Alan Sepinwall writes about “Deadwood,” his already great prose sings with a new melody. When Mo Ryan looks at “B-movie TV,” her enthusiasm (as well as intelligence) leaps off the page. For my own part, I’d like to think that my writing for “Spartacus” and “Scandal” were more entertaining to read because of how much I responded to those shows. Simmons, Nussbaum, Sepinwall, and Ryan all see faults in the things that inspire these passions. But in honestly analyzing the things they love, they do those topics more credit than simply pretending those flaws don’t exist in the first place.

In following their own unique passionate paths, critics have the opportunity to borrow from Hardwick’s universe and enrich their own. They also have the chance to carve out unique spaces in an increasingly flooded marketplace. Nussbaum’s “Sex And The City” piece vividly demonstrates the appetite for discussions of shows outside of the “Mad Men”/”Breaking Bad”/”Other Antihero Show” spectrum. By thinking less about what Hollywood is trying to sell as the next big thing/what everyone else in the critical industry is going to cover, and thinking more about what personally excites them  and focusing almost entirely on that, critics can bring back some of the excitement stolen by Hardwick’s empire. Fans of these shows don’t all want to simply be told how great something is. “Being critical of a show” is different from “looking at it critically,” and it’s time for the world of criticism to reclaim some enthusiasm for that latter practice.

Ostensibly, we all got into this world because we love TV. It’s time we start showing that more often.